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I attended the annual three-hour Good Friday service recently at our local Presbyterian Church. It's a tradition for me, something I have done for years. But this year, something struck me that I hadn't thought about before. I had certainly heard the second word from the cross preached about, had even preached on the text myself. But, although the thought must have crossed my mind, its deeper meaning never hit me as hard as it did this year, as I sat in the back pew.

"Today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23:43.

Why would Jesus say such a thing? That statement could explode like a bombshell in the church if we were to press its implications. What had this man done to deserve such a promise from Jesus?

He was a criminal. A thief, perhaps, if tradition is accurate. But his crime must have been serious to earn him the cross. We think, because of what is recorded about him, that he was basically a good man at heart, but there is no evidence for this. He was the worst of criminals being put to death in the worst way the Romans could devise.

The other criminal sets up the situation by taunting him. "Jesus! You're the Messiah. Save yourself. And save us, too!"

But, from the opposite side of Jesus' cross comes another voice. The second criminal, having a moment of conscience, interrupts the first. "You're going to die," he shouts at him. "Aren't you afraid of meeting God? We're all being executed, but at least you and I deserve what we're getting. But this man hasn't done any wrong." Then, in a softer voice, he speaks to Jesus. "Remember me when you come as King." (TEV)

That's the extent of it. And on the basis of that short interchange, Jesus responds by saying to the second criminal, "You'll be in Paradise with me today."

Now, think about this. The man didn't repent of his crime, he merely acknowledged that his punishment was just. He didn't state his faith that Jesus was the Messiah. Ironically, it was the "unrepentant" thief who did. The second criminal, referring to the sign over Jesus' head, expresses the hope that Jesus will somehow miraculously become King some day, and will remember him kindly when that day comes. But this is an earthly hope, not a statement of his faith about heaven. So, all we know about him from scripture is that he had some fear of God's judgment, that he accepted his sentence as just, that he thought Jesus was innocent of the crime for which he was being executed, and that he hoped that Jesus' future kingship might gain him some advantage.

We don't hear words of true repentance. He doesn't accept Jesus as his savior. He doesn't join the church, make a pledge, or seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We don't even know if he was a good Jew, though it's unlikely. He fulfilled none of the steps the evangelical tracts tell us we must take in order to be "saved." But Jesus tells him, "You're going to heaven with me."

Doesn't this little story suggest that, quite apart from what the later theologians like Paul tell us, the next step beyond death is the spirit world - and that that means not hell but heaven? It is not our works which save us, and it is not our sins which condemn us. It is not even the work of a savior that makes us acceptable to God. It is the fact that we are part of God, and that God cannot reject his own, regardless of the quality of our earthly life. There may be consequences for our behavior, but there is no hell.

The final words of Jesus to a criminal dying cruelly after a violent and godless life are directed to all of us. In these words we hear the grace of the God who made us in God's own image. Thus, on our own deathbed, if we listen closely, we can hear him say again, "Friend, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Posted May 1, 2004

Copyright: John W. Sloat 2004